Friends and families crowded the entrance of St Anthony’s Orthodox Church in Abu Dhabi on Friday night as they hugged and wished each other a blessed Christmas.
Filing into the hall for evening Mass, it was the first time celebrations have been permitted with a full congregation since pandemic restrictions were eased.
Its been three years since the Coptic congregation in Abu Dhabi was able to fill the 3,334-square-metre cathedral that can accommodate 3,000 to 4,000 people on any given day.
“During the pandemic, the church had kindly set up a highly efficient system for the congregation comprising three time slots, to ensure that everyone got a chance to attend the Christmas Eve service and pray,” said long-time UAE resident and regular churchgoer Fayroz Faris.
The church implemented the UAE's directives on social distancing and regular PCR tests to avoid any potential outbreak or spread of the disease.
“It was so successful that neighbouring places of worship commended the church and asked how it went about setting up the schedule.”
Copts, the largest Christian denomination in the region, celebrate Christmas on January 7, as do most Orthodox churches. Egyptians comprise the vast majority of St Anthony’s congregation, which includes some Sudanese. A 43-day Lent is celebrated before Christmas.
“I'm looking forward to lead the prayers tonight for my beloved community in its entirety for the first time since January 2020,” Father Bishoy Fakhry, one of three priests who has led the church since 2014, said before the service.
An orthopaedic doctor by profession, Father Bishoy has lived in Abu Dhabi for more than two decades and has always been humbled by the UAE's generosity and tolerance.
“The UAE can be best described as a kind nation, driven by great values of cohesion and understanding.”
The congregation at St Anthony’s is said to be the oldest in the UAE, with a church established in 1984.
There are seven Coptic Orthodox churches in the UAE, with others in Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah and one under construction in Ras Al Khaimah.
The services at St Anthony’s Orthodox Church in Abu Dhabi began at 8pm and lasted until after midnight and were attended by the Egyptian ambassador to the UAE, Sherif Issa.
The church’s two grand halls were overflowing with worshippers dressed up for the occasion.
“This is our first Christmas in Abu Dhabi since moving here from Australia in February last year. We’re looking forward to sharing this joyous celebration for the first time with our entire church community,” said Ghada Issak, operations manager at Exchange for Change.
Before the service she said it was difficult celebrating Christmas away from her extended family in Australia, but is grateful for the community support and fellowship provided by St Anthony's.
“There’s still a lot of debate in our family about how and where we’ll spend Christmas Day, but one thing is certain, we’ll be spending Christmas Eve together as a family at church attending Christmas Mass.”
Christians stayed well into the night for gospel readings, followed by a dinner in the early hours of Christmas morning.
On Christmas Day, the church will resume its tradition of its youth singing Christmas carols in front of their parents and the church staff, followed by the priests giving out gifts to the children. These activities were halted during the pandemic because of social distancing.
“Our young Sunday school attendees are brimming with excitement at the thought of getting up on stage and singing their all-time favourite Christmas tunes in Arabic,” Ms Faris said.